Like many peripheral things which stick in the mind I can still remember the lines of French poetry which the BBC broadcast to the French Resistance as the code to signal the advent of D-Day. To those who waited, these sonorous words conveyed the unleashing of an awesome power, they announced the dawn of liberation.
It’s a slightly cumbersome analogy, but hearing the O Antiphons each year reminds me a little of that. This strange and rather beautiful-sounding poetry is a signal to those who wait with expectation for the unleashing of God’s liberation. These few words are the Church’s code for telling us to expect mighty acts. To those who know the code, they are like a clarion call to action.
The waiting and the love and the longing they express are on a huge scale. The Church echoes the voice of Israel and her hope for a Messiah kept alive down the ages through her tortuous history, the promise of the Prophets.
These antiphons have the authentic sound of Advent in that they look to God’s past actions and on them predicate an even more wonderful future of His presence in the world. The O Antiphons draw their mysterious titles from the Old Testament and from the Apocalypse with its promise of a new heaven. They call God by a historical title, but also call out to Him to come again.
More than 14 centuries old, the O Antiphons precede and close the recitation of the Magnificat at Vespers and they are the Gospel acclamation for the weekdays from December 17. Thus they focus our minds on Mary’s waiting and on her child, reminding us that He is also the Messiah, the one whom the ages long for. They belong also in the Mass because here we see expressed the “Advent” structure of our faith. Here we both rejoice in His real presence among us and at the same time we proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes.
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